Monday Medical: The healing power of pets | SteamboatToday.com

Monday Medical: The healing power of pets

Riley Polumbus

Dori, a schnauzer, comforts patients at Yampa Valley Medical Center with her owner, Terry Hinde. The pet partners, members of Heeling Friends, make regular visits to the hospital.

For ages, pets were thought to have healing power. And now the results from clinical studies prove this point — pets are good for humans.

From Australia to Japan, in the United Kingdom, and across the United States, findings demonstrated that pets reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, thus lowering risk of heart disease. Dog owners benefit from the exercise of daily walks. Pet owners are less prone to loneliness, depression, anxiety and fear.

Dogs have been recruited into health care settings for their healing power. Trained therapy dogs helped cardiac patients lower their stress and anxiety and improve heart and lung health. Joint replacement patients who worked with therapy dogs needed less pain medication than patients without dogs.

Pets have helped to stimulate seniors with Alzheimer's disease. In another study, children with autism became calmer around service dogs and had fewer outbursts.

Although Steamboat Springs does not have any therapy pets working with health care professionals where treatment goals are set and measured, we do have a popular pet visitation program. Lynette Weaver, executive director of Heeling Friends, said local pet partner teams can help patients relax and make them feel better.

"Patients welcome them with open arms," Weaver said. "By the time the team leaves, the patients are smiling and in better shape than when they got there."

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Heeling Friends has been operating for more than 10 years, using the Delta Society's Pet Partners program standards as its guide. Delta Society is a nonprofit organization "dedicated to improving human health through therapy and service animals." Pet/owner teams first must undergo evaluation and training and then must make a minimum of two visits per month.

Currently, Heeling Friends has 28 active teams who participate in one of three visitation programs. Teams go to see patients at Yampa Valley Medical Center and/or residents at Doak Walker Care Center. They also participate in the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program with Steamboat Springs' elementary students.

I had the opportunity to follow pet partners Dori, a schnauzer, and Terry Hinde during a recent visit to YVMC and the Doak Walker Care Center. One patient expressed that visits from Heeling Friends always are comforting and can be especially nice for patients who have pets at home who they cannot see while in the hospital.

Patients are not the only benefactors of the visits. Dori brought smiles to several employees. In an environment that often can be challenging, taking a moment to, as Weaver puts it, "paws to make you smile," can heal the healers. The pets also bring comfort to families and friends who are visiting their loved ones.

At the Doak Walker Care Center, pets reside alongside residents. This helps the skilled nursing center feel more like a home and less like a medical facility.

"The neat thing about the animals, it gives you that homey feeling," said Kathy Ulmer, recreation assistant at the Doak.

The Doak is home to two cats, Lola and Alex, along with several birds and a large fish aquarium. Ulmer said the birds and fish stimulate the residents. And Lola makes her way around nearly every resident room during the day.

Additionally, employees are encouraged to go through the Very Important Pets screening program to allow their pets to accompany them at work. Five employee-owned dogs currently are permitted to visit.

Everyone, not just the sick, can benefit from the healing power of pets. What you spend on pet care, you could save on health care. Giving your time to another is fulfilling in itself and can improve not only your health, but also your quality of life.

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at riley.polumbus@yvmc.org

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